The 50 Best Albums of the Year (#20-11) (Sponsored By Teen Wolf Too)

Some might say this was the finest work Jason Bateman would ever do.  20. Al Green–Lay It Down (Blue Note) What more did you want from Al Green? Did you want him to wear Levar Burton...
By    December 29, 2008

Some might say this was the finest work Jason Bateman would ever do. 

20. Al GreenLay It Down (Blue Note)


What more did you want from Al Green? Did you want him to wear Levar Burton sunglasses and use auto-tune? Did you want him to do a ladies only tour? Did you want him to employ interplanetary metaphors to soundtrack your supernova sex life? (You can say yes to this one). The point is, Al Green did everything he was supposed to, which is, be Al Green. Sure, he updated the formula, recruiting John Legend, Corinne Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton to impress people who shop at Whole Foods. He brought in ?uestlove, James Poyser and one of the Dap Kings to do their best Willie Mitchell imitation. But nearly 40 years later, it’s still all about that voice–still knee-buckling, sounding as though its been preserved in amber. In a year where Isaac Hayes and Al Wilson waddled off this mortal coil, this album is ongoing proof that we should feel blessed to still have Al Green to teach us how to lay it down. –Jeff Weiss

MP3: Al Green-“No One Like You”

19. Vampire WeekendVampire Weekend  (XL)


Still trying to figure out why Vampire Weekend became the only Harlem-based album worth a shit since Purple Haze? Like most great hip-hop debuts, the band managed to forge a readily knowable personality that allowed you to experience their story-songs as if the narrator was already someone you knew, and obviously, people completely unfamiliar with irony got rubbed the wrong way. Well, unless there’s absolutely no crossover between bloggers who were aghast at the Republican meme of anti-elitism and the bloggers who caught feelings because Vampire Weekend had the nerve to be happy, well-off, educated and not from Malawi.

But in the end, despite the silly arguments about whether it was OK to listen to Afro-pop as long as you never, ever, ever tried to sound like it, VW was the only internet-fueled band that made commercial inroads in 2008 because they crafted eleven songs of instant familiarity, sturdy and keen detail, with only one (or, only “One”) being a complete dud. I suppose the Strokes comparisons make sense, considering Vampire Weekend, like Is This It? or even Illmatic is so fully-formed on touchdown that it almost seems impossible that the band can do it again. But at least the inevitable sophomore backlash is going to be way more fun this time around.–Ian Cohen

MP3: Vampire Weekend-“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa”

18. Sic AlpsU.S. EZ (Siltbreeze)


Sometime after Bob Zimm begged to stomp on that leopardskin pillbox hat, Sic Alps was one letter deletion from designation: point of departure, signpost, a bit of juvy Braille carved from a jr. high desk covered in penciled prattle of cock ‘n’ cunt. Sic Alps seem the sort predisposed to cipher. Codes, keys, symbols apparent and obtuse. Doubt it fucking formed up any a priori notion of what their music was s’posed to “sound like.” More than willing to glide down Spiral Stairs (see/hear U.S. EZ’s “Bric Jaz,” replete with Pavement’s predilection for linguistic tomfuckery), the duo works well balancing focus and fuzz; avoiding cliché as it flirts with the sort of classicism (dis)embodied by big rock ‘n’ roll ghosts. When Donovan sings: “I know I put down every word and letter in its place;” it’s clear he’s not establishing apologia. We could sing-song, “First there is a mountain / Then it seems the mountain’s gone.” We could mumble, “Ev-reee-thin. Ev-reee-thin. Inits rye-ght place.” Or we could offer: slack-jawed wonder in the face of the impermanent. First there is a mountain… But rock ‘n’ roll’s always offered a strained and flexed ontology; it’s been as good at soapboxin’ grand generalizations as it has slurring nonsense from a street corner. Sic Alps are wont to fuck with both brands, as “Hey! Sofia” is every bit the California dreamin’ encapsulated by Alice in Chains’ “Would.” Nothin’ like screaming technicolor pop, feeback so slow-mo it might as well join the perso-tag traffic crawl. They’re too disinterested to delve into the messianic. They may be singing and playing about motherfucking everything that’s around them—whether coming in or out of being. But they’re light-years removed from rock ’em sock ’em social commentary. No one’s lookin’ for a fight. Sic Alps are just alright.–Stewart Voeglin

MP3: Sic Alps-“Gelly Roll Gum Drop”

17. Wolf ParadeAt Mount. Zoomer (Sub Pop)


For a while, it appeared that Spencer Krug had permanently strayed from the pack. Add that to Dan Boeckner’s Handsome Furs joints and Dante DeCaro’s ongoing celebration of no longer being in Hot Hot Heat and the death knell seemed to ring particularly loud for a young, promising band. However, that freedom to explore and experiment somehow made Wolf Parade more cohesive and greater than the sum of their parts. While At Mount Zoomer is not as initially striking as instant classic, Apologies to the Queen Mary, it stands as an excellent document of a band that has grown together and apart.

The drums are clean. The guitars are clean. The vocals aren’t shrouded in reverb or buried in the mix. The Bowie influence has been muted, while the Springsteen aping has become more prominent. At Mount Zoomer finds the band both moving forward and looking to their past. Familiar lyrical themes like water, ghost towns, and horses abound, but Boeckner and Krug manage to make them sound fresh. The competition that exists between the two primary songwriters has always been what made Wolf Parade so great–this tension allows them to explore both traditional and avant-garde structures, which results in songs that don’t sound recycled but rather feel like two different chapters of the same book. Too bad the album cover looks like it was designed by a mentally deranged 8-year old who escaped from a Soviet Gulag.–Trey Kirby

MP3: Wolf Parade-“Call It A Ritual”

16. DJ RuptureUproot (Agriculture)


In his scrumptiously succinct review of Uproot, Mike Powell began, “If you want to understand DJ/rupture’s music without hearing it, read his blog.” It’s an appropriate suggestion; for instance, take a look at Jace Clayton’ most recent entry, which features an excerpt from an interview he participated in for Plan B. He states,

“I don’t care what ‘Westerners’ fetishize. They’ve been fetishizing black people for centuries now, who cares? You simply exist in all your complexity and let them deal with it. Fetishism is so vague. I care a lot when Westerners rip off non-Western musicians, even by rendering them anonymous like Sublime Frequencies often does, but random concepts of fetishization don’t really mean much. It’s almost too abstract to matter.”

Then he posts a spy flick-flavored, house piano-filled, baritone choir-backed Brazilian song about an elephant. Dilettantes: step off. –Tal Rosenberg

MP3: DJ Rupture-“Reef: Baby Kites & Nokea”

15. IslandsArms Way (Anti)


For their sophomore stunt, Islands perform the nearly-impossible-to-pull-off White Album trick of absorbing a crazy quilt of styles without approaching imitation. In the course of Arms Way’s hour-plus run time, they inseam everything from concert hall symphony to stoner-prog, rum cocktail calypso, to hair-cut indie, to dizzy Sondheim-esque rambles. Hell, they even sample “A Quick One While He’s Away,” from fellow genre-swiping masters, The Who. Despite frontman Nick Thorbun’s lyrical obsession with death, his songs retain a sonic levity that never feels tacky, and a sly playfulness that would ostensibly leaden similarly grim songs. Capturing a sense of exoticism, adventure, and whimsy without coming off corny or simplistic, Islands blend disparate ingredients into a strong tropical brew. Stick an umbrella in it, garnish with a side of pineapple and drink up.--Jeff Weiss 

MP3: Islands-“Arm’s Way”

14. Cut CopyIn Ghost Colours (Modular)


Like a dream, In Ghost Colours shifts hazily from idea to idea according to its own internal logic. It is not a selection of songs, but a collection of images coalescing with vivid clarity for brief, wonderful periods before dissolving back into sonic vapor. The lyrics are vague and occasionally trite, yet the mood is swooning and romantic. The music shimmers and sparkles, seemingly making perfect sense, even as it discards things like song structure as elements of the conscious world. Waking up when it’s all over, you remember only moments, instances that seem nonsensical if you try to explain them to someone else: “It was disco, but all the songs were compact and melodic, like pop music! ‘Strangers in the Wind’ was Fleetwood Mac turned into a dance band, and there were lights and music, and also a song called ‘Lights and Music’! Somewhere there were girls, and they were crying, and sometimes they were talking on the phone, and I think it probably all happened at night, except ‘Feel the Love’ was a sunny summer morning at a music festival, and, and, and, then in the middle of it all there was a saxophone…” –Jonathan Bradley

MP3: Cut Copy-“Hearts on Fire”

13. The KillsMidnight Boom (Domino)


From the bass throb and telephone tone treble of opening tune “U.R.A. Fever” on, Midnight Boom is no ordinary indie rock album. For a start, it’s strikingly empty. The drums are flat, and often synthetic. The brittle guitar lines stretch taut over a black bass rumble. VV’s voice alternates between expressionless murmur and expressionless yowl. The effect is hypnotic; The Kills’ most striking contribution to the record is the expanse of blank space rather than the actual sounds interrupting it. The resulting void is music to get lost in, and because these tense, tight constructions never dissolve into messy release, there is no way out. You just have to stick with VV and hope she guides you safely through the madness. Run with it; as she sings on “Cheap and Cheerful,” “I want you to be crazy because you’re boring, baby, when you’re straight.”–Jonathan Bradley

12. Esau-Mwamwaya + Radioclit-The Very Best (Self-Released)


In which, a Malawian singer/junk shop owner now living in London teams up with British/Parisian, Mad Decent-affiliated producers to sing a smattering of African tongues over the hottest beats of recent vintage on a mixtape done Piracy Funds Terrorism style–meaning bloggers are contractually obligated to fawn.  With Mwamwaya’s gorgeously crooning over samples ranging from M.I.A.’s “Boyz,” and “Paper Planes;” to Hans Zimmer’s True Romance theme; to Cannibal Ox’s “Life’s Ill,” the effect is the rare zeitgeisty type record as fun to listen to as think about.  Particularly, when the East African singer re-re-appropriates Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” and turns it into  post-modern commentary on culture stealing, the Manute Bol arms of the Internet and the mixtape medium shedding its chrysalis. More importantly, it shows them kids how to rhyme.–Jeff Weiss

ZIP: Esau-Mwamwaya + Radioclit-The Very Best (Left-Click)

11. Flying LotusLos Angeles (Warp)


With even the slightest change in form enough to beget a new (pointless) House sub-genre and increasingly powerful gear opening bold new frontiers for electronic producers, Flying Lotus’ Los Angeles stands as an anomaly. Too funky and organic for glitch, too glitchy for hip-hop, too jazzy and atmospheric for IDM, too smart for Trip-Hop, too American for Dubstep but too alien for downtempo, Los Angeles actively resists classification. Instead, the album thrives on its compositional value: it’s not what Flying Lotus does but how he does it. Static is repurposed into percussion, tribal drums and sitars melt into off kilter boom-bap, weed-inspired washes of sound crash into scratch-aping synthesizers and the whole of the project is cast in a deep, dark haze. The gloom is seductive, all analogue warmth and popcorn crackle and in making a record for LA’s massive sprawl, FlyLo unwittingly frees electronic music from the cramped confines of the club. This is music that works just as well on a lonely desert road as it does in the subways of a Metropolis gone mad. By grabbing the best ideas from Ninjatune, MoWax, Stones Throw and Warp but ignoring their formal constraints, Flying Lotus has dropped an incredibly progressive album that doesn’t flaunt its novelty at the expense of its character. Call it Electronic Soul.–Sach O

MP3: Flying Lotus-Breathe . Something/Stellar STar

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